The Museum of Innocence
535 pp., 28.95
Reviewed by Laurance Wieder
Hall of Mirrors
The Museum of Innocence tells of Kemal Bey's obsessive love for his beautiful distant poor relation Füsun. Set in Istanbul between the late 1960s and the present day, Kemal's narrative begins with "The Happiest Moment of My Life" and ends with "Happiness."
While the story of his love knows two brief periods of intense fulfillment, the eight years bracketed by those flashes are composed of patience, incomprehension, and the unconscious hoarding of every physical trace of every waiting moment. And after? Kemal traveled the world, acquiring anything associated with his extended moment of true feeling.
Toward the end of his life, the wealthy Turk contemplated framing his collection with a story: "I would dream happily of a museum where I could display my life—the life that … everyone else thought I had wasted—where I could tell my story through the things that Füsun had left behind, as a lesson to us all." So he hired prominent novelist Orhan Pamuk to write the catalogue of this Museum of Innocence, where, "wherever one stands inside it, it should be possible to see the entire collection …. Because all the objects in my museum—and with them, my entire story—can be seen at the same time from any perspective, visitors will lose all sense of Time. This is the greatest consolation in life."
A man as interested in happiness as Kemal Bey sowed a lot of passing misery along the way. In a country where a woman's putative virginity is in most cases all the goods she brings to the cultural table, Kemal took Füsun's proffered virginity on her 18th birthday, weeks before the party announcing his formal engagement to Sibel, the perfect wife. When his cousin asks Kemal if he's having sex with Sibel, he denies it. A lie. They've been doing it in his office on the leather divan. After the engagement, avoided by Füsun, he cohabits with Sibel, who wonders at his newfound impotence. Is something wrong? Is there someone else? Will he visit a psychoanalyst? No, no, and yes: all lies.
The perfect marriage doesn't happen.
Kemal tracks down Füsun. She's been married off to a fat boy. They live with her parents. Nearly every day for eight years, Kemal goes to their apartment for dinner and sits up with the family until the TV signs off, a patient suitor for a married woman's hand. He takes the family to dinner at restaurants, and issues an invitation in a narrative aside: "I would like every visitor to our museum to find these outings as pleasant as I did, so I shall go into some detail here. After all, isn't that the purpose of the novel, or of a museum, for that matter, to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness all can share?"
Kemal's mother takes a different view. He can't find happiness with Füsun, or he'd have found it by now. He responds with a smile. Angered, she declares: "In a country where men and women can't be together socially, where they can't see each other or even have a conversation, there's no such thing as love …. By any chance do you know why? I'll tell you: because the moment men see a woman showing some interest, they don't even bother themselves with whether she's good or wicked, beautiful or ugly—they just pounce on her like starving animals. This is simply their conditioning. And then they think they're in love. Can there be such a thing as love in a place like this? Take care! Don't deceive yourself."
If there can't be love in a place, can there be happiness? If there is only avowed sincerity to prove or disprove the existence of happiness, or love, what to make of the avowals of a confessed liar?
"Love," Kemal Bey explains, "is deep attention, deep compassion …. What Turks should be viewing in their own museums are not bad imitations of Western art but their own lives …. My museum comprises the life I shared with Füsun, the totality of our experience, and everything I've told you is true, Orhan Bey …. [E]ven though I have … described my life with utmost sincerity, even I cannot know how much I have understood it as a whole. We can leave that job to future scholars, and the articles they will write for Innocence, the museum magazine."
I was stuck for a long time on the innocence. Kemal and Füsun were first alone together when they were twenty-four and twelve respectively, six years before the happiness began. They'd run short of liqueur at a large family party celebrating the first day of the Feast of the Sacrifice. Kemal's father dispatched him to restock and, seeing young Füsun standing near the door, Kemal asked her along. On the way to the corner shop, they paused with a crowd gathered to watch the butcher slit a lamb's throat. The secular Kemal couldn't properly explain the story of Abraham and Isaac to the child. So he appealed to the family chauffeur, who related that "By this sacrifice we say that we are willing to lose even the thing that is most precious to us …. And we do that without expecting anything in return …. [Y]ou don't need religion or a mosque to know such things."
In the final chapter, "Happiness," Orhan sought out the now-retired chauffeur. Çetin Efendi describes Kemal as unchanged since boyhood, open and optimistic. Füsun and Kemal "were essentially good and innocent souls who suited each other perfectly, but as God had been unwilling to let them be together, we mortals were in no position to question the outcome too closely."
Orhan Pamuk's 1998 Ottoman-period novel My Name is Red (which might have been called "Someone is Killing the Sultan's Manuscript Illuminators") contains an extended discussion of the conflict between the rising Venetian school of portraiture and the dominant Persian style, teasing out the mortal implications of what might otherwise be mistaken for art history. By the time that book appeared in English, in the winter of 2001, the questions this fiction asks had acquired more urgency, more resonance. What exactly is a person's individuality? How can it be represented? Which is more powerful: religion, culture, or erotic and thanatoptic nature? Does love conquer, and if so, what? Among the many narrators of this mystery of ideas is the six-year-old Orhan, who, like all of Orhan Pamuk's storytellers, is both witness and participant.
Pamuk's next novel, Snow (2002 in Turkish, 2004 in English), collaged the notebooks and journals of the deceased poet Ka with news clips, interviews, and on-the-scene research. The poet's friend Orhan, an Istanbuli novelist, tells Ka's life as he lived it: a story of revolutionary commitment and aesthetic modernism, journalism and prophecy, love and impotence in Kars, in northern Turkey, near the border of Georgia, Armenia, and Iran.
At Kemal's last meeting with Orhan Bey as recounted in The Museum of Innocence, the collector of memories says, "I read your novel Snow all the way to the end …. I don't like politics. So please don't be offended if I say I found it a bit of a struggle. But I liked the ending. At the end of our novel I would like to do the same as that character in Snow and address the reader directly. Do I have this right?"
Is this the plea of innocence, or of not knowing?
Kemal Bey is a self-confessed liar. He lied to his lover, to his fiancée, and to his mother. Presumably, he also lies to his hired scribe, Orhan Pamuk. No one is deceived except himself.
One insignificant guest at Kemal's engagment party to Sibel, who as a young man danced once with the beautiful Füsun under Kemal's jealous gaze, Pamuk is no fool. The novelist knows Kemal for what he is, which must be in part himself. From this distance or privileged vantage, the ghost author of the museum catalogue withholds some thing from his narrator—not his time, certainly, and perhaps not even affection; perhaps judgment.
Laurance Wieder's review of Orhan Pamuk's Snow appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Books & Culture. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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